Taking a look at Fuel Asobo's only game for CodeMasters Haxmonster goes over how a small studio with a great idea can still fall short.

Posted by: Jason Silverain / Category: ,

Technological advancement in videogames is a more complicated process than it might seem at first glance. In order to create a new technology for games that really takes the entire industry to the next level you not only need to be able to develop a tool or technique that really adds something to the digital experience, you also need to use it in one of your titles in such a way that other studios are convinced of the use of your findings. If you succeed at the first part of this task, but don’t manage to show your idea’s merits in an excellent game, you are left with a game dominated by a big fat gimmick with nothing else around it. There have indeed been many games in the past that successfully elevated themselves over mediocrity with tech, such as Half Life 2 or Borderlands 2, but perhaps more often a new and interesting idea of an ambitious programmer dies because of that it was wasted on a boring, repetitive title with no ‘fun factor’. Think of things like Rage, which failed to make the use of megatextures standard practice, Borderlands 1, or the game I actually want to discuss now: Fuel.

Because of that Fuel sits in the ‘gimmick-category’ mentioned above chances are you’ll never have heard of it. It is a post-apocalyptic racing game published by Codemasters that came out in 2009 by Asobo, a studio that in my mind never did anything interesting besides Fuel. The central idea was to make a primarily off-road racing game where the player would mostly be able to decide their own route with a spectacular weather system and a sandbox of one hundred kilometres on each side. The sandbox was to be generated with a special algorithm without anyone building the world manually. What they ended up with was, indeed, a generated sandbox of 100 by 100 kilometres, It’s only a shame that this sandbox was filled with a few boring races, cars and trucks that all handle roughly the same and a weather system that merely varies between sunshine and a light drizzle.

First I’ll just elaborate on the good, which is not much more than Fuel’s driving (haha) gimmick. The aforementioned world generating process can best be described as a Minecraft world where you use the exact same seed every time. When you use the same seed in the same algorithm to generate a world, you will always end up with the exact same result. That is what happens in Fuel.
When you jump in the game there is no loading going on. Instead the game generates the world all anew and because of that the seed doesn’t change the world doesn’t change either. You might ask why you would want to go through the effort of making a world with such a big detour.
The benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, it saves huge amounts of disc space to just put instructions to make a world on the disc rather than putting the game world itself on the disc. It’s the same as how packing the parts of a chair and instructions on how to assemble the chair takes less space than packing an entire assembled chair. The second advantage is that the developers don’t have to painstakingly build every square centimetre of the game world by hand. That would be completely undoable, especially for a small studio like Asobo. Of course it’s still hard to write an algorithm of a world that’s to your liking, but in this case it was still a lot faster.

The world Fuel generates is quite a beautiful one. Set in a post-apocalyptic scenario where global warming has ravaged a large part of the US, Fuel’s game world spans everything from forests and tundra’s to sandy deserts, rocky deserts, salt planes, from dunes to mountains or mountain ranges and burnt-out forests. The level of detail is very consistent. There are no blank areas in the game world like in Grand Theft Auto V and, if the graphics were better, I’d sometimes swear I’d be looking at real-life locations because of that the colour palette and expansiveness of the world make it seem very realistic. You can often see many kilometres far and there are no boundaries like mountains that you can’t go over. Still, the game bears the telltale scars of being randomly generated. Some roads are draped over mountains in very improbable ways and sometimes you’ll find a barn in a certain place where first there was a bungalow because the type of building that spawns somewhere varies every time, but the problems are very minimal considering the scale.

You can probably imagine why this technology is completely awesome. I can only imagine how cool it would be like to play something like a Far Cry game in an area the size of northern Ireland. However, most AAA developers didn’t really pick up the idea procedurally generation as a substitute for manual world building and that’s partly because of that Fuel failed as a racing game. If a racing game doesn’t contain fun races, no-one will buy it and if no-one buys the game, nobody will meet the technology behind it and the few that do play the game will not be convinced of it’s merits because of that it didn’t help deliver a fun experience. This is what happened to Fuel.

The gist of Fuel’s racing is pretty much that you race against ten or so AI opponents with either bikes, buggies, cars or trucks over small tracks. The races are laid out with waypoints and you can choose any route you like. For each race you choose your difficulty and winning grants you points and ‘fuel’, the in-game currency. Your reward increases as you pick a higher difficulty. Once you have obtained an X amount of points you unlock new areas of the map and from that moment on you can fast-travel to those areas and participate in the races there. You use the fuel you won to buy new cars, but you can also find fuel in the sandbox and collect it to buy new cars. Winning races also grants you new clothes to modify your character.

There is a small variety of race modes, like normal circuit racing, racing a helicopter, doing some kind of knock-out race but they all feel the same and in all of the ‘helicopter races’ the helicopter always stays ahead of you until right before the end, when it stops to let you win. As for the other races, being able to pick literally any route whatsoever to your objective is very nice but beyond that the races are really boring. There is little difference between types of car and here too the AI seems to slow down at the last part to let you win. Fuel’s problems are so severe because of that they have to do with the central mechanic: the racing. The repetitive racing doesn’t make any use of the big sandbox apart from the nonlinear track. Fuel would have benefited from bigger races that would have felt like true voyages through the enormous world but instead every race feels like a boring little rally through identical hills.

Another gripe I have has to do with the story and setting. I know this is a racing game and I’m not expecting to see a story that could rival The Witcher, but at the very least the game could make me feel like I’m actually in a ravaged post-apocalyptic world. As it is the world indeed looks very post-apocalyptic but that’s only half what you need to make it actually feel ravaged. The promised enormous storms and tornadoes the back of the box boasted just never came and you run into one of the two kinds of NPC trucks driving about every ten seconds, quite literally actually as their retarded AI guarantees a crash every time they want to take an exit while you’re overtaking them. Then there’s the game’s currency. The currency is called ‘fuel’ and in the game world it looks like a barrel of oil. Considering that this game is about a world where fossil fuels are running out you’d say that you actually need fuel to run your car, creating a feeling of shortage. That was my impression anyway when I first read about fuel years ago. That is not true, however. Fuel is just the same as good old fashioned dollars in every respect. I also don’t really feel as if there’s a shortage of fuel when I’m driving around on a plain and see a barrel every hundred meters. And there are more problems, such as the fact that the game boasts an online mode where you can see other players. An in-game hint said about that mode that ‘it’s a jungle out there’. If by jungle they mean a desolate place, abandoned by all people, then it is indeed a jungle. Because of that the rest of the game is so dull no-one is drawn to the online mode.

If Fuel had wanted to more efficiently advertise it’s technology it would have to use it in gameplay better. The fact that using your gimmick for the gameplay advertises it so well is why Oblivion, which used Bethesda’s new radiant AI system, had you stalk people all day long to demonstrate how NPC’s were doing all kinds of things all day long. In the case of Fuel it would have been best if the game had been geared more towards exploration and, to it’s merit, a few futile attempts have been made to get the player to roam about. You can find new paint jobs for your car by exploring and the game also marks out a few nice views for you to find but none of that is really worth the effort as it doesn’t give you any remarkable benefits.

A game that uses similar tech and that probably will showcase it better is No Man’s Sky. This interstellar space-flying game uses procedural generation to generate entire solar systems once a player first enters them and then the seed is saved, so that other players who enter the system will see the same thing as the first one to come there. Practically this works the same as Fuel, only with a world that is created bit by bit. Considering that No Man’s Sky will reward the player for discovering new things in the world and as there are things like a trading system and a persistent multiplayer world, everything is aimed at making the most of this huge world.

So, fuel was just one bright idea overshadowed by a boring central mechanic, a misuse of namesake, boring gameplay and a lack of actual setting. Now I am counting on No Man’s Sky to save this idea from the bin in which the entertainment industry also threw stuff like megatextures or scent-cinema, the bin of ideas that didn’t make it. I’m just overjoyed about this remarkable revival, since this may move the scope of the biggest triple-A developers towards randomly generated worlds. Then, one day, we may be able to enjoy Grand Theft Auto: Belgium… on true scale!


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